In December 2015, the parliament of the partially-recognized, Russian-backed state of Abkhazia in the South Caucasus quietly passed a bill outlawing abortion. On February 9, that bill was signed into law. Days later, news broke that the parliament in Chechnya, a region in the Russian North Caucasus, was considering a similar proposal.
While abortion rights in Russia have been under threat since at least 2003, these legislative initiatives are a new kind of battle. Instead of waging piecemeal attacks on abortion access, including through laws requiring ultrasounds and waiting periods, an anti-abortion movement within the Russian Orthodox Church appears to be using the country’s peripheral regions as test cases for full-fledged abortion bans.
Abortion in Russia
Russia has long had one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Broadly speaking, this is a result of an anti-contraceptive bent in Soviet medical policy designed to increase the birth rate; though contraception was not encouraged, abortion was legal for much of the Soviet Union’s history. As contraception has become more widely available, abortion rates have dropped significantly –from 169 per 100 live births in 2000 to fewer than 60 per 100 today. Nevertheless, Russia still remains at the top of the world rankings.
For several reasons, Russian women have continued to use abortion as their primary form of birth control. Abortion is covered by mandatory medical insurance, meaning that Russian citizens are entitled to have these measures financed by the state. Russian women are also far more likely than those in other developed countries to use high-failure methods, such as condoms, as their primary form of birth control, and/or to regulate childbearing solely through abortions. This is because of a continuing residual distrust of oral contraceptives; in Russia, many believe that a woman’s fertility can be permanently damaged by the hormones in contraceptives.
Limits on Abortion and the Orthodox Church
Under Russian law, first-trimester abortions are always legal; later abortions are allowed based on the presence of social or medical indicators that make termination of the pregnancy appropriate or necessary. Over the last twenty-five years, the overall structure of these laws has not changed. But, much as in the United States, access has been increasingly limited by the gradual restrictions.
In the crisis years of the 1990s, the list of social indicators was substantially expanded to keep women from resorting to illegal back-alley abortions. Since 2003, as President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power and social and political stability have returned to Russia, the list has gradually been rolled back.
Historically, “social” indicators included incarceration of the pregnant woman or her partner, poverty, rape, or being underage. By 2012, only “pregnancy as the result of a crime” remained on the list of social indicators. Thanks to efforts by anti-abortion advocates, waiting periods of 48 hours for women in the fourth to seventh and eleventh to twelfth weeks of pregnancy, and seven days for women in the eighth to tenth weeks of pregnancy, have been added over the last five years.
The Russian Orthodox Church is leading the anti-abortion charge. In January 2015, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave a speech in parliament advocating for a complete ban on abortion. In June of that year, the Orthodox Church and the Russian Ministry of Health signed an “agreement on cooperation” to fight drug abuse, alcoholism, and homelessness, support end-of-life care – and prevent abortions.
Later that year, legislators from the Volga region of Samara introduced a federal bill to remove abortion from the list of medical services guaranteed by the state; it failed, allegedly due to technical issues. In response, the Patriarch recommended passing laws that would require women to look at a fetal ultrasound, obtain the support of their families, and undergo psychiatric evaluation before receiving an abortion.
The Church’s commitment to the anti-abortion cause and determination to change existing law increased after the founding of the St. Gregory The Theologian Charity Foundation in 2010. The charity was founded by Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations. The foundation is headquartered at the Russian Orthodox Church’s seat in Moscow. It is funded by a major pharmaceuticals tycoon, Vadim Yakunin, with support from donors who include Russian businesses and U.S.-based conservative organizations.
While the foundation is aimed at “the revival of Orthodox traditions, the support of the Orthodox faith, and the preaching and dissemination of Orthodox spiritual and cultural values” rather than specific anti-abortion work, its offshoot, Saving Life Together, which was founded in 2015, provides resources to crisis pregnancy centers and is currently running a social advertising campaign against abortion in Moscow.
Through these organizations, the Church has likely played a role in pushing for the Abkhazian and Chechen anti-abortion bills. In Abkhazia, the Church openly declared its involvement. Interfax news agency quoted Leonid Sevastyanov, a businessman, church leader, and director of the St. Gregory foundation as saying that the foundation “carried out our human rights activities in Abkhazia so that the government of the republic would see the necessity of the ban on abortion and the defense of children’s right to be born. This precedent will go down in the history of the rights movement.”
Sevastyanov has, however, denied any Church involvement in Chechnya, and instead has given full credit to the majority-Muslim republic’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his inner circle. Nevertheless, there are several reasons to suspect some Church involvement. The bill was introduced directly after the signing of the Abkhazian law. Through its representatives, the Church has shown a deep familiarity with the Chechen bill. Indeed, Sevastyanov has acted as the bill’s unofficial spokesman to the media. At the very least, these factors suggest that Kadyrov may have received counsel from the Church in formulating the legislation.
Advancing a National Abortion Ban Through Abkhazia and Chechnya
Abkhazia is closely tied to Russia, but not bound by Russian law, so anti-abortion legislation passed there does not run up against existing Russian abortion laws, and can be implemented immediately. In this way, Abkhazia could serve as an example of what “success” in fighting abortion looks like, particularly if the region’s birth rate spikes in response.
As for Chechnya, an anti-abortion law is likely to pass the Chechen legislature. In addition to being majority Muslim and devout, Chechnya has the highest birth rate and lowest abortion rate in the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, it is unclear how passing such a law would help bring national change. While it is a republic with its own executive head, Chechnya is a subject of the Russian Federation – much like a state in the United States – so a ban would run up against federally established rights.
There has been little talk of this potential legal conflict. The bill’s backers may, however, hope to open a legal challenge to the federal abortion law in Russia’s Constitutional Court; to test whether the federal law would even be enforced against contradictory republic laws; or to start a national conversation, while expecting the law’s ultimate nullification.
If the initiative is coming directly from Kadyrov, a loose cannon who alternately obeys and defies the Kremlin, it could be intended to directly flout federal law. As of now, the usually vocal Kadyrov has not issued any statements about the bill or his support for it.
The Consequences for Russia
Church leaders, as well as politicians, are fond of marrying theological and practical arguments against abortion, claiming that abortion is a major contributor to a low birth rate. Some organizations have even argued that stopping abortion would add 4 million births per year to the registers.
However, banning abortions is neither good public health policy (indeed, the Abkhazian Ministry of Health begged parliament not to pass the ban), nor good population policy. Historically, when abortion access has been restricted, it has often led to individual-level catastrophe, rather than long-term population growth. Women lose control over when they have the children they intend to have – an unintended pregnancy leads either to an illegal abortion procedure or to unplanned births. In response, they adopt other contraceptive strategies to limit their fertility. The end result is a temporary uptick in births coupled with increased suffering and negative outcomes for both parents and children.
For example, when abortion was made illegal in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, the result was a sudden jump in the birth rate, followed by a gradual return to previous levels of childbearing over the space of about fifteen years, despite the limited availability of modern contraception. The situation led to a national crisis, with huge numbers of Romanian children abandoned in state orphanages.
This is a recipe for needless human suffering, not for a strong and vibrant population. Nevertheless, given the recent nationalist revival of Orthodox values, the Church’s increasing influence, and the many anti-abortion initiatives that have been proposed and enacted in recent years, further restrictions on abortion seem inevitable. The question is one of timing and degree. If Chechnya manages to outlaw abortion, national restrictions could come much faster and be much more expansive than anyone expects.